Fulbright is a cultural exchange program--the intention for participants is to return home with new perspectives to bring to our own cultural issues. My return to the US coincided with rising outrage over the conditions in detention centers for migrant children separated from their families. It was impossible not to draw parallels to the situation on Samos. I knew then that the mural was not complete, and began contacting agencies working on our border about bringing the mural project there. I could not get access to the detention centers themselves on our side of the border, despite reports of a lack of any activities at all for children being held in detention. (1) However, through the efforts of Hope Border Institute, I was able to bring the project to Casa Del Migrante in Ciudad Juárez, right across the border from El Paso. This turned out to be an appropriate place for the next mural panel to be completed because of how the situation has recently shifted for asylum seekers on the border. The ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy (pursued by the Trump administration, marking a historic shift in how the asylum system works) is putting tremendous pressure on migrant shelters in Ciudad Juárez.
On June 7, 2019 President Trump negotiated an agreement with Mexico to step up immigration enforcement and to increase the number of migrants returned to Mexico to await asylum proceedings, a policy known as Remain in Mexico (and now referred to as the Migrant Protection Program by the Trump administration). Asylum seekers fleeing violence and extreme poverty in Central America are returned to dangerous conditions in Juarez to await court dates set up to a year in the future, with virtually no access to the legal advice they would require to support their claim. Currently only 1% of asylum seekers attempting to cross the southern border will be allowed to stay in the US while awaiting their hearing. (3) Since the agreement, the number of migrants returned to Juárez doubled to 200/day, a rapidly unsustainable increase in a city with only a dozen overcrowded shelters (mostly run by churches) with a combined capacity of 1500. (4)
Asylum seeking migrants are a vulnerable population in Juárez, targets of kidnappings, robberies, and assault. Migrant shelters in Juárez are run by churches and locked down to protect their residents. (5) These migrants have already endured a long and dangerous journey from their home country, in addition to the years of violence and trauma they were trying to escape. From their home countries in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, many migrant families make their journey by train, illegally scaling the slow-moving cars. In addition to the perils of perching on top of or inside a box car, migrants on the trains are also targets for kidnappings, rape, and extortion. (6) Migrants that walk or take buses face the same dangers. When they are returned to Juarez after being turned back at the border, migrants are brought by volunteers to overburdened facilities like Casa Del Migrante, run by churches in the area (municipal shelters don’t exist).
(1) Silva, Chantal Da. “These Are the Heartbreaking Stories Migrant Children Shared of What It's like to Be Locked in U.S. Detention.” Newsweek, 2 July 2019, www.newsweek.com/migrant-children-share-heartbreaking-stories-u-s-detention-1446447.
(2) Rose, Joel, and Laura Smitherman. “Fear, Confusion And Separation As Trump Administration Sends Migrants Back To Mexico.” NPR, NPR, 1 July 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/07/01/736908483/fear-confusion-and-separation-as-trump-administration-sends-migrants-back-to-mex
(3) Rose, Joel, and Laura Smitherman. “Fear, Confusion And Separation As Trump Administration Sends Migrants Back To Mexico.” NPR, NPR, 1 July 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/07/01/736908483/fear-confusion-and-separation-as-trump-administration-sends-migrants-back-to-mex
(4) Pérez, Santiago. “New U.S. Asylum Rule Strands Thousands at Southern Border.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 16 July 2019, www.wsj.com/articles/new-u-s-asylum-rule-strands-thousands-at-southern-border-11563285772.
(5) Vulliamy, Ed. “A Day with the Men about to Make It across the US Border – at Any Cost.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 22 Jan. 2019, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/jan/20/a-day-with-the-men-about-to-make-it-across-the-us-border-at-any-cost.
(6) “Most Dangerous Journey: What Central American Migrants Face When They Try to Cross the Border.” Amnesty International USA, 20 Feb. 2014, www.amnestyusa.org/most-dangerous-journey-what-central-american-migrants-face-when-they-try-to-cross-the-border/.